|A boy danced as his mother sorted through garbage, an occupation reserved for the lower castes, in New Delhi. (Emily Wax/Washington Post)|
LAKSHMAN JHULA, India - Not so long ago, in the back of a tin-roofed restaurant, Ramu, a teenage dishwasher, spent his nights chained to a radiator. That's how his employer kept him from running away.
Ramu wanted to flee because his boss, who was from a higher, more privileged caste, constantly berated him for showing an interest in learning to read. The boss believed Ramu had to get used to a life of cleaning up after other people because as a Dalit, a member of India's lowest and most shunned caste, he could never amount to anything.
Then a foreigner who ran a private school and home for Dalit children noticed Ramu. He enrolled him in classes. Ramu is now a star pupil with a voracious and ever-changing appetite for activities including yoga, photography, and film directing.
"In my childhood, I was so desperate for learning," said Ramu, a gregarious 19-year-old. "There are so many jobs other than dishwashing that I hoped to experience."
His school, Ramana's Garden, is one of many progressive, mostly private institutions that have begun trying to dismantle the barriers of India's caste system, a centuries-old pecking order under which higher castes have access to quality schools and jobs and lower castes remain largely poor and illiterate.
Some of the schools are opening their doors to Dalits and members of other so-called backward castes previously denied enrollment. Others are offering such students courses typically available only to upper castes and teaching them that their fates should no longer be determined by culture or tradition.
For the vast majority of the members of India's lower castes, however, the pace of change has been slow and the successes limited. Yet the cause has never been more urgent.
Across this country, home to one of the world's largest student populations, a dual education system has emerged. India's economic boom has fueled the rise of elite private schools for the children of high castes, while the public school system has become a dismal refuge for the children of the lower and middle castes.
Lower-caste students face daily abuse by teachers, who ignore them in class, and by higher-caste students, who refuse to speak or make physical contact with them, according to a recent independent, government-funded study. Their dropout rates are among the highest in the world, the study found.
Activists fear that failure to close the education gap could not only cause further social unrest, but also hold back national development. Backward castes, along with Muslims and other tribal groups, make up nearly 70 percent of India's 1.1 billion people.
"In India, it's not separate and unequal. It's cruel and unequal, and it's getting more pronounced," Ashok Agarwal, a lawyer who runs Social Jurist, a watchdog group that litigates education cases on behalf of marginalized sectors of society. "India is only shining for a tiny minority. For most people, India is getting darker.
"Hope starts and ends with the schools. Fix the schools, and society will begin to be fixed. And that means overcoming caste in the classroom," Agarwal said.
In more than half the classrooms across India, Dalit children are often forced to sit in the back and to eat separately, according to a 2006 study by the International Dalit Solidarity Network.
They are bullied, assaulted, and humiliated. About 73 percent of Dalit students drop out in secondary school, according to a government report.
Upper-caste teachers, who send their own children to private schools, are often accused of discriminating against lower-caste students by refusing to pick them for leadership roles and using them for menial chores, including sweeping and cleaning latrines - the kinds of occupations that are traditionally the only ones available to the students' parents.
In an example of how caste discrimination can shatter a student's ambitions, Bahadur, 15, dropped out after his teacher constantly teased him in front of other students, who later beat him.
"I couldn't go to that place anymore. Respect is not there. But I liked all my subjects. Maybe I will try again," Bahadur said, his voice barely above a whisper. "But I don't think so."
Officially, caste-based discrimination is outlawed by the national constitution. Affirmative action programs ensure lower castes have at least some access to higher education and government jobs.
But the reality is that the consequences of the caste system can be seen everywhere. Activists say the real problem starts in primary schools, where children form their ideas about caste.